Werner Herzog’s “Of Walking in Ice”

ONE

Herzog during production of Fitzcaraldo.
Herzog during production of Fitzcaraldo.

He gives the reason for undertaking the journey in the diary’s brief foreword: “At the end of November, 1974, a friend from Paris called and told me that Lotte Eisner was seriously ill and would probably die.” Eisner was 78 at the time.

Born in Berlin in 1896, she had fled Germany in 1933 and like many Jewish intellectuals had tried to regroup in Paris. During WWII she was interned in a concentration camp at Gurs in Aquitaine. After the war she worked closely with Henri Langlois, founder of the Cinemateque Française as a chief archivist while continuing to write for Cahiers du Cinema during the crucial early years of the Nouvelle Vague.

La Cinémathèque Française link

Werner Herzog continues, “This must not be, not at this time; German cinema could not do without her now.” So, in a gesture of iron-willed control over seeming dark inevitability, Herzog decides to walk from his home in Munich to Paris to visit Eisner, convinced that if he does, she will recover. The thought behind this decision has a certain historical kinship to that of the medieval pilgrims to Santiago Campostella in Northwest Spain, who also believed that a hundreds of miles walk would save their souls.  Herzog sets off on what will be a more than three week odyssey equipped with little more than a small rucksack, a compass, some survival money and, improbably, a new pair of boots. Convinced of the necessity of his trek, mere material preparations must have seemed an irrelevance. Moreover, he says, “I want to be alone with myself.”

His daily record of this walk was published in German in 1978 as Vom Gehen in Eis and in English in 2008 as Of Walking in Ice:

Amazon.com Werner Herzog - Of Walking in Ice: Munich - Paris 23 November - 14 December 1974 link

If the sheer physical discomfort he endured—from rain, ice, snow, chilling wind, suspicious peasants and farmers, were a measure of grace gained, then Lotte Eisner, who died in 1983 at 87, would still be alive. This journal is not one of an adventure in nature but of unrelenting discomfort. Herzog’s confrontation with the raw elements of an early winter and its assault on his body reads as an analogue for that of many of his fictional characters, who also face down and are battered by implacable if not outright hostile Nature. Neither Aguirre, Fitzcaraldo, nor Dieter Dengler lives in a time/space continuum much different from that which Herzog faced on this journey.

To understand the passion that drove Herzog to begin this walk to save his mentor you need to understand the role of Eisner in postwar German film. Though she lived in Paris, her soul resided in German cinema. Her books on Murnau and on Expressionist Cinema, The Haunted Screen, provided a link back in time for the New German Cinema filmmakers of the 70s to the golden era of the 20s, to Murnau, Pabst, Lang; that primacy was cut off first by the introduction of sound and then by the hegemony of National Socialism. Eisner abandoned Germany even earlier than Fritz Lang.

Eisner and Maria, the "Metropolis" Robot, 1979.
Eisner and Maria, the "Metropolis" Robot, 1979.

In the book Herzog on Herzog, edited by Paul Cronin, the director recalls encountering Eisner:

I first met Lotte because of her voice. At the Berlin Film Festival in maybe 1965 she gave a lecture, the first time she had returned to Germany since 1933. I walked past the open door of the lecture hall and heard her voice. It was so stunning and so special I just walked in and listened….  (he met her only several years later). I vividly remember sitting with Lotte in her Paris apartment drinking tea and almost casually [said] to her, “I just can’t go on.” And in between a sip of tea whilst munching a cookie, without even looking at me, she very calmly just said, “You are not going to quit. Film history will not allow you.” Then she went on about her noisy neighbors or something like that. It was one of the key moments of my life.

Amazon.com Herzog on Herzog link


Eisner and Herzog, film frame grab, source unknown.
Eisner and Herzog, film frame grab, source unknown.

Besides being alone for three weeks, besides the pilgrimage to save a friend, besides coming to terms with his growing international success after the release of Aguirre, Wrath of God, Herzog had an almost philosophical reason for undertaking this journey. Since his teenage years, walking (not hiking) had occupied a singular place in his spirit. Later in the Cronin book he says:

Traveling on foot has nothing to do with exercise. I spoke earlier about daydreaming and that I do not dream at nights. Yet when I am walking I fall deep into dreams. I float through fantasies and find myself inside unbelievable stories. I literally walk through whole novels and films, and football matches. I do not even look at where I am stepping, but I never lose my direction.

Of Walking in Ice is not an ordinary account of a journey. It does not even resemble the poetic journey of Bruce Chatwin, another great walker, in Songlines. Herzog’s walk happens on a seemingly real physical level: the details of terrain, temperature, wind, ice, all appear to be factual. But in the midst of what seems to be a literal description, something untoward happens. Something strange, unexpected. But then it gets even stranger, so strange that you realize you have crossed over into a near metaphysical realm. The walking itself becomes the story, an ambulatory Bildungsroman, a kind of virtual prolegomena to an entire universe of stories and characters, mad, fugitive and evanescent, that one day will escape his fertile, febrile mind and into the images of his films: the characters of Aguirre, Fitzcaraldo, Dieter, trapped in a hostile, not benign, Nature.

Certain critics have spoken of what they see as Herzog’s link to the great 19th century tradition of German Romanticism as captured in the paintings of Casper David Friedrich. But nothing is farther from Herzog’s truth, it seems to me. Nature in his universe is aggressive, if not outright homicidal, toward man. This becomes increasingly clear in his documentary films of the past decade, even if it is still, for some, ambivalent in his earlier feature films.

Throughout, the writing is of closely observed and recorded detail, as if the words were film images. On day three he reports:

Hail and storm, almost knocking me off my feet with the first gust. Blackness crept forth from the forest and at once I thought, this won’t end well. Now the stuff’s turning into snow. On the wet road I can see my reflection below me. For the past hour continual vomiting, only little mouthfuls, from drinking the milk too fast. The cows here break into a gallop unexpectedly. Refuge in a bus stop of rough, stained wood. Open to the west so that the snow blows into the most distant corner, where I am. Along with the storm and snow and rain, leaves are falling as well, sticking to me and covering me completely. Away from here, onward.

Setting out the next day, Tuesday 26 November, he thinks of Eisner, ill in Paris:

How is she? Is she alive? Am I moving fast enough? I don’t think so. The countryside’s so empty, and has the same forsaken sense for me as during that time in Egypt. If I actually make it, no one will know what this journey means.

Two days later his description of the weather begins to feel more existential:

A black morning, gloomy and cold, a morning that spreads itself over the fields like a pestilence, as only after a Great Calamity…. There was a grey speckled swan, fighting against the current, but he remained in one spot, unable to swim more swiftly than the current. Behind him the grating of a mill, before him water rushing abruptly down, leaving him just a small sphere of activity. After a period of turbulent tumbling and churning there, he is forced to return to the shore.

Is this a literal description or is there an anthropomorphizing element? Does anyone feel the spirit of Aguirre on the slowly sinking raft, chasing the monkeys as he slides downriver at the end of the film? Are his own reflections a Herzog “story” that he creates while walking? Or is it simply reality reported?

It is two days later. Herzog continues on in foul weather, his introspection and solitude becoming stronger. Coming upon a bus stop shelter he tries to find refuge only to be met with stares by passing children. He moves on:

Then snow, snow, rainy snow, snowy rain; I curse Creation. What for? I’m so utterly soaked that I avoid people by crossing sodden meadows, in order to save myself from facing them. Confronting the villages I stand ashamed. Confronting the children I change my face to look like one of the community.

Another two days on, Monday December 2, Herzog happens on a red rock quarry where he sees a rusting truck and a petrol fire nearby. In the sheets of rain he can feel “the annunciation of the end of the world.” A train races through the landscape, “its wheels glowing and a car erupts into flames.” He now moves clearly into that über-physical realm from which stories and heroes are created:

Unimaginable stellar catastrophes take place, entire worlds collapse into a single point. Light can no longer escape, even the profoundest blackness would seem like light and the silence would seem like thunder. The universe is filled with Nothing, it is the Yawning Black Void. Systems of Milky Ways have condensed into Un-stars. Utter blissfulness is spreading, and out of utter blissfulness now springs the Absurdity.

What is the Absurdity? The very next line after the above is: “This is the situation. A dense cloud of flies and a plague of horseflies swirls around my head.”

Is this some form of inversion of Herzog’s vaunted “ecstatic truth?” Is Jean-Paul Sartre lurking somewhere in the wings? One of the many things I find so riveting about Herzog and his films is this conflation of fact and imagination, how the mind mulls over the quotidian fact and exalts it almost into the realm of the meta-physical. It is a bridge to the doorway of madness, and there is no filmmaker alive who can cross this threshold the way Herzog does. Instead of seeing the Blakean divine in a blade of grass, Herzog sees the maniacal. To enter into the world of his anti-heroes in nature is to enter the obverse of Wordsworth and the whole tradition of bucolic poetry.

TWO

Where many dystopian, visionary filmmakers find their metaphor in urban decay, Herzog finds his in what many of them seek as refuge and solace, an unspoiled nature, but for him it is often a malevolent one. As I read this diary of his journey from 1974, I feel it is a key to understanding his work.  To be as reductive as possible: “Nature is not our friend.”

One of the very few detours Herzog takes on this journey is to Domrémy to see the birthplace of Joan of Arc. As he gets close he tries to find shelter by breaking into several abandoned or vacant houses, a routine he has exercised when there were no dry barns or shelters along the way. After all the discomfort to get there, his comment on the site of Joan’s birth is quiet and simple:

At Domrémy I went inside Joan’s house; so this is where she comes from. It lies right by the bridge. There is her signature, before which I stand for a long time. She signed it “Jehanne,” but most likely her hand was guided.

“Her hand was guided.” This is such a “Herzogian” phrase. Was it guided by God, by a roughly clad village scribe or a soft-handed priest? Such ambiguity is crucial.

Again he continues to walk. He sees the passing landscape in fragmented moments, like jump cuts in a film, until his attention is frozen by the sight of a single apple tree, still bearing fruit:

Apples hang in mysterious clusters, close to one another…. I picked one, it tasted pretty sour, but the juice in it quenched my thirst. I threw the apple core against the tree, and the apples fell like rain. When the apples had grown still again, resting on the ground, I thought to myself that no one could know such human loneliness…. So I went and shook the tree until it was utterly bare. In the midst of the stillness the apples pummeled to the ground. When it was over, a haunting stillness grabbed me and I glanced around but no one was there. I was alone. At an abandoned laundry I drank some water, but that was later.

We are deep into the world of the fictive Herzog hero, raging against the world of nature, and no matter the passion unleashed, one that is indifferent to him. The deliberate disjunction in time and space embodied in the last line speaks of reality run amok. In a certain sense it is irrelevant to us, and I suspect also to Herzog, just how “real” all this is. He has often been accused by critics that his documentary films are not truthful; but that is an irrelevant position to argue. So, what exactly, is truth? Herzog says that “facts” are not truth. And why should his non-fiction films (or even this narrative of a journey) be limited to the “accountant’s” facts?

On Thursday, 12 December, Herzog is about 50 miles from Paris and decides to push ahead without stopping. Outside the town of Provins a bus overtakes him. Out of this a “story” emerges:

… While passing, the driver opened the pneumatic doors to throw away his burning cigarette butt. Both doors opened when he did it, in the front and in the back. The driver does this from habit, he almost never has any passengers to drive, the bus is almost always empty. One day a school kid, leaning against the door with his satchel, falls out. They only find him hours later because the only two passengers on the bus are seated farther up front and didn’t notice a thing. But it’s too late and the child dies that night. In court the bus driver has nothing to say in his defense. How could it be, he asks day after day, again and again? The sentence, incidentally, hasn’t been passed yet. The cold has made my hands as red as a lobster.

This story begins as a simple “fact” maybe gleaned from a local newspaper. But the tone quickly becomes clearly speculative and ends again with that odd disjunctive comment—this time about his cold hands. How are we supposed to “read” this? Like his films I think. Reality and personal mood are inseparable. Herzog is creating “ecstatic truth” to match his own drained physical state.

The next day he reaches Paris and the hectic parade of passing people fragments his impressions even more. The day’s last entry is positively Beckett-like:

Several waiters took up the pursuit of a dog that had run out of a café. A slight incline had been too much for an old man, and he pushed his bicycle, walking heavily, limping and panting. Finally, he stands still, coughing, unable to go on. On the rack behind him he has fastened a frozen chicken from the supermarket.

Must hunt Peruvian harp music with female singer. Exhaulted hen, greasy soul.

Someone had told Eisner that Herzog had come to see her, and he had walked over 500 miles. She is clearly very weak but Herzog is not in such great condition himself. He recalls the meeting:

We shall boil fire and stop [sic]  fish [he tells her]. Then she looked at me and smiled very delicately…. For one splendid, fleeting moment something mellow flowed through my deadly, tired body. I said to her, “Open the window. From these last days onward I can fly.”

So could Eisner. She recovered and lived almost nine years longer.

THREE

Herzog is an amazingly physical as well as thoughtful filmmaker. I experienced his high energy when we were making Zak Penn’s film, Incident at Loch Ness.

Zak Penn drawing down on Herzog, “Incident at Loch Ness.” It’s a flare gun, unloaded.
Zak Penn drawing down on Herzog, “Incident at Loch Ness.” It’s a flare gun, unloaded.

We spent long hours for several weeks on Loch Ness in a cramped boat. The crew had a daily respite for lunch, however brief, when we could pull up to a dock, disembark and eat a sandwich at a picnic table. Often Herzog remained on board, pacing, itching to continue work. Here is a short clip from Incident at Loch Ness, Werner on Werner:

And on playing a character named Werner Herzog:

There is a brief scene early in Incident at Loch Ness where I am talking to and filming Herzog as he pages through a journal he kept during the making of Fitzcaraldo. The font is tiny. At the time I shot the scene he was using a magnifying glass to aid in the transcription. The journal has recently been published under the title, Conquest of the Useless. He told me the script in his journals is always this small:

Herzog's diary page from “Fitzcaraldo.”
Herzog's diary page from “Fitzcaraldo.”

Amazon.com Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of Fitzcarraldo link


FOUR

It is no surprise that when he was once questioned about the efficacy of film schools his reply was less than enthusiastic. What should matter to an aspiring filmmaker, he believes, is something like the experience he had while walking to Paris to visit Eisner:

Actually, for some time now I have given some thought to opening a film school. But if I did start one up you would only be allowed to fill out an application form after you have walked alone on foot, let’s say from Madrid to Kiev, a distance of about five thousand kilometers. While walking, write. Write about your experiences and give me your notebooks. I would be able to tell who had really walked the distance and who had not. While you are walking you would learn much more about filmmaking and what it truly involves than you ever would sitting in a classroom. During your voyage you will learn more about what your future holds than in five years at film school. Your experiences would be the very opposite of academic knowledge, for academia is the death of cinema. It is the very opposite of passion.

At a time when so many of our film schools have become recruiting depots for the mainstream motion picture and video industry and when some don’t even refer to themselves any longer as “film” schools (a much too parochial term given their multivalent curriculum) Herzog’s dictum has added meaning. Without true life experience to draw on and with the confining walls of academia growing ever higher as “critical studies” usurp what once was a maverick field of study, I can’t help wonder if there is any co-dependency between aspects of this insularity and the seeming poverty of real human stories in “Hollywood.”  I’ll let Herzog have the final word on this impoverishment. He speaks of images—but in film, images can also bear the weight of ideas. Herzog’s films are the proof.

I truly believe that the lack of adequate imagery is a danger of the same magnitude. It is as serious a defect as being without memory. What have we done to our images? What have we done to our embarrassed landscapes? I have said this before and will repeat it again as long as I am able to talk: if we do not develop adequate images we will die out like dinosaurs. We need images in harmony with our civilization and our innermost conditioning, and this is the reason why I like any film that searches for new images no matter in what direction it moves or what story it tells. One must dig like an archaeologist and search our violated landscape to find anything new. One must go to war, if need be, to find these unprocessed and fresh images.

6. herzog in color

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